HL Deb 13 November 1991 vol 532 cc560-2

2.55 p.m.

Lord Monson asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, in view of the serious consequences of joy-riding, they will propose the repeal of Section 37 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988.

Earl Ferrers

No, my Lords. However, it is the Government's intention to propose to Parliament a new offence which will provide for more severe punishment when the taking of a vehicle has aggravating consequences.

Lord Monson

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer. Is he aware that, almost exactly four years ago during the Committee stage of the Criminal Justice Bill in this House, a few of us expressed the fear that to lower the maximum sentence for taking a car without consent from three years to six months and to lower the maximum fine—both, no doubt, for perfectly valid reasons of administrative convenience—would almost certainly lead to trouble? That has proved to be the case.

In order to save valuable parliamentary time, would it not suffice to introduce a simple single-clause Bill to restore the maximum penalties to their pre-1988 level, to be used in conjunction with valid existing laws covering manslaughter, dangerous driving and criminal damage?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, there are existing laws which enable the police to take action. Our concern is to ensure a tougher sentence for what is done to or by the car after it has been taken. Before 1988 Section 12 of the Theft Act allowed for the taking of a vehicle without consent to be tried in the magistrates' court or the Crown Court. The noble Lord, Lord Monson, is right in saying that there was a maximum penalty of three years. However, experience showed that sentences of more than six months were rarely imposed—in about 3 per cent. only of cases in any one year. The average sentence given in magistrates' courts was 3.7 months both in 1988, which was before the change, and in 1989, which was after the change.

Therefore, to reimpose a system which allowed a heavier penalty which was not used appears to be unnecessary.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, I did not hear the Minister reply to the fundamental question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Monson. Will a simple Bill be introduced quickly to deal with the matter? The situation is a great deal worse than it was three or four years ago. Joy-riding involves the slaying and maiming of innocent people.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Molloy. It is the Government's intention to introduce a Bill for that purpose.

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, is the Minister aware that in certain parts of the country motorcycles are also taken for joy-riding? That is occurring to such an extent that insurance cover will be unavailable to many motorcyclists, especially in the North. Joy-riding on a motorcycle can be as lethal as joy-riding in a car.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I agree with the noble Viscount; it is terrible that motorcycles should be used as joy-riding vehicles. Incidentally, I emphasise that the description of this activity as joy-riding is bad because it is not joy-riding but highly dangerous behaviour. The fact that the offence involves motorcycles underlines the necessity of introducing a Bill to deal with this vexatious problem as soon as possible.

Lord Irvine of Lairg

My Lords, the Minister mentioned that a Bill will be introduced. Will he explain why the gracious Speech did not mention legislation to implement the Home Secretary's promise of prompt government action to combat car crime? Are the Government unaware of the strength of public feeling for an urgent and immediate legislative response to deaths resulting from joy-riding such as the recent tragic death of Adele Thompson in Liverpool?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I wholeheartedly concur with the sentiments of the noble Lord, Lord Irvine. This behaviour is awful and it needs prompt attention. The noble Lord asks why this matter was not mentioned in the Queen's Speech. He has forgotten those mellifluous words: Other measures will be laid before you". That is one of the other measures which will be laid before your Lordships. I assure the noble Lord that we consider this matter to be extremely serious and we intend to take action upon it.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes

My Lords, does my noble friend not agree that whatever new measures may be introduced, unless the measures are widely and strictly enforced, those people will still be a law unto themselves and will continue to be a menace to society?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, that is true. That is one of the dangers. The noble Lord, Lord Irvine, asked why we have not produced legislation immediately. The problem is that if the Government produce something immediately, noble Lords opposite say that the legislation has been hastily prepared and is all wrong. When we try to work out legislation among various departments, the police and so on so that it will be as effective as possible, we are told that we are being slow. We are trying to get it right.

Lord Richard

My Lords, does the Minister agree that whether or not the Bill is produced straight away a notice of intention should have been expressed in the gracious Speech? For all the noble Earl's urbanity and pleasantry with the House, that was a staggering omission.

Do I understand from what the noble Earl tells us that the essence of the new offence will be the old taking and driving away offence plus aggravating circumstances? If that is so, will the noble Earl tell us when we are likely to see a copy of the Bill?

Finally—and I ask this because it may be of importance to the House—we have heard hints that this matter may be dealt with by Private Members' legislation. I ask the Minster for an assurance that this will be a government Bill and not left to the Private Members' procedure?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Lord says that it was a staggering omission, but if every single Bill to be introduced by the Government were to be mentioned in the Queen's Speech those lovely words which I quoted, which appear in every Queen's Speech, would be redundant. In fact they are put in the gracious Speech for that purpose.

The noble Lord asks what will be in the Bill and I understand his desire to discover these matters. However, I ask him to be patient and wait. We are trying to get the Bill right and I do not intend to tell him exactly what it will contain. Finally, I can assure the noble Lord that it will be a government Bill.

Lord Monson

My Lords, does the noble Earl agree that, apart from the question of joy-riding, for 95 per cent. of motorists who have their car taken without consent, the person who has taken it is a thief, whether the car be taken for 24 hours or 24 months, not least because just as much damage can be caused in 24 hours as in 24 months?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Lord is a keen scrutineer of these matters. Unfortunately, he is not a lawyer. Theft involves the intention permanently to deprive the owner of his or her property. Those people who take cars for the purpose of so-called joy-riding do not, therefore, come under the Theft Act unless the intention is permanently to deprive the owner of his property.